Sunday, 14 October 2012

SLA, SLN wither under Tiger onslaught

War on terror revisited: Part 56


In the North: Bodies of SLA personnel are transferred from the LTTE-held area to the SLA controlled area under the supervision of the ICRC. During the conflict, the ICRC transferred bodies of thousands of combatants across frontlines in the North. Tamil civilians are loading bodies of SLA personnel killed in a major confrontation in the North.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The LTTE infiltrated areas liberated by Jayasikuru troops to carry out hit and run attacks. The SLA was thin on the ground. In support of the SLA, the then government deployed the SLN as well as the SLAF to hold areas liberated by Jayasikuru troops. On the morning of March 14, 1998, an LTTE artillery attack wounded the then Brigadier, Sarath Fonseka, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) 55 Division and his deputy, Brigadier Tuan Bohran. They were replaced. At that time, some believed LTTE infiltrators could have directed LTTE gunners to direct artillery fire at Brigadier Fonseka’s headquarters situated south west of Mankulam. Major Priyantha Ranasinghe died in the attack. Ranasinghe posthumously promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, had arrived in Mankulam a few days before. The 55 was one of the three Divisions deployed on the Vanni front, others being 56 and the elite 53. The then Deputy GoC of the 56 Division, Brigadier D. S. K. Wijesooriya, too, was wounded in a mortar attack also on the same day. On March 11, the LTTE claimed the lives of two officers holding the rank of Captain attached to the fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5GW) in a mortar attack. On March 4, the then Colonel Jagath Jayasuriya of the Armoured Corps, was wounded in a landmine explosion (present Army Commander).
The LTTE allowed the government to hold elections for 17 local government bodies in the Jaffna and Kilinochchi electoral districts on Jan 29, 1998. In fact, the LTTE didn’t mount a single attack on the day of the election. The SLFP-led PA and the SLA misinterpreted the absence of violence as by the LTTE due to it being weakened in the Jaffna peninsula. The then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle told a group of visiting journalists from Colombo that the SLA was able to thwart several LTTE attempts to disrupt the election. The writer was among the group of journalists in Jaffna to cover the first election since the liberation of the entire peninsula in late May 1996. (Polling gathers momentum with strap line Despite LTTE last ditch effort at Gurunagar to prevent polls-The Island Jan 30, 1998).

Of the 17 local government bodies, the government sponsored EPDP bagged 10 councils, whereas the TULF secured two. The remaining local bodies were shared by the PLOTE and the TELO. The EPRLF failed to secure at least one local body. Maj. Gen. Balagalle declared that the SLA was able to ensure an incident free election. The then Vanni District MP Dharmalingham Siddarthan asserted that heavy military presence prevented large scale election malpractices (EPDP bags ten local government bodies in the North-The Island Jan 31, 1998). Security Forces headquarters wrongly asserted that that LTTE made an abortive bid to send a group of infiltrators across the Jaffna lagoon to Jaffna as it couldn’t have mounted a bigger raid in the Jaffna peninsula. In the run-up to the election, the LTTE stormed an EPDP camp at Punguduthivu Island, killing nine members, including two candidates contesting the Velani Pradeshiya Sabha. (Terrorist plan to disrupt elections aborted-The Island Feb 1)

Fresh offensive

Having allowed the government to hold elections for 17 local bodies on Jan 29, 1998, the LTTE mounted a multi-pronged attack on the newly raised 54 Division headquartered in Elephant Pass in the early hours of Sunday Feb 1, 1998. It would be important to mention that the 54 Division commanded by the then Brig. Lohan Gunawardene was one of the three divisions placed under Maj. Gen. Balagalle, with 51 and 52 divisions, respectively under Brig. Shantha Kottegoda and Chula Seneviratne being the remaining two. Within hours after the launch of the operation, the SLA realised that the action was a major effort aimed at 54 division troops deployed at Vettilikerni, Elephant Pass, Paranthan and Kilinochchi. Forces based in the Jaffna peninsula (Troops deployed in areas controlled by 51 and 52 divisions) went on alert in the wake of the LTTE making an unprecedented bid to destroy the SLA artillery base at Iyakachchi, north of Elephant Pass (54.1 Brigade). The commando-style raid went awry due to those assigned to Iyakachchi reacting swiftly. The SLA killed all 12 attackers. The SLA repulsed the attack in spite of suffering substantial losses (Over 200 Tigers, 20 soldiers die in K’nochchi battle with strap line Army requests ICRC to handover bodies-The Island Feb 1, 1998).

The Feb 1 offensive targeted three of the five Brigades attached to 54 Division, with the main attack directed at troops holding the first line of defence at Kilinochchi (54.5 Brigade).  The LTTE succeeded in dislodging the SLA from part of its defences at Kilinochchi, whereas the attackers failed in other sectors. Although Kfirs launched from the Katunayake air base targeted LTTE units occupying SLA defences at Kilinochchi, they didn’t budge (Fresh LTTE attacks repulsed with strap line Death toll in K’nochchi battle: 300 Tigers, 45 soldiers-The Island Feb 3, 1998).

It was the beginning of one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict. Maj. Gen. Balagalle, who succeeded Maj. Gen. P.A. Karunatilleke as the SF Commander, Jaffna, on Nov 1, 1997 found himself in an unenviable position. Maj. Gen. Balagalle failed to dislodge the LTTE from a four km long defence line previously occupied by the SLA. Although, the SLA managed to hold onto Kilinochchi town, the 54 division never recovered from that setback. The LTTE repulsed several attempts by the SLA to regain the area abandoned at the onset of the offensive on Feb 1, 1998. The stage was set for the LTTE to score an unparalleled battlefield victory, to prove its capacity and capability to conduct major ground operations with multiple objectives. On Feb 8, 1998, the LTTE, in a statement issued from London, declared that they had been successful in repulsing an SLA attempt to regain lost territory (Army refutes LTTE claiming control of Kilinochchi town-The Island Feb 10, 1998).

Now the SLA was under pressure on two fronts. The Jayasikuru offensive struggled on one front with the LTTE thwarting its advance towards Kilinochchi. The offensive, launched on May 13, 1997 had turned out to be a costly affair, with the SLA losing over 1,000 officers and men without achieving its major objectives. The LTTE had been able to stall the offensive involving three divisions, 55, 56 and the elite 53 in spite of taking heavy losses.

In the second week of Oct, Jayasikuru troops captured an area west of Mankulam. With the SLA gaining positions west of Mankulam, troops strengthened their positions (Troops bag Mankulam west-The Island Feb 14, 1998).

Visit to Kilinochchi

In the wake of the LTTE issuing statements from London claiming that it had evicted the SLA from Kilinochchi on Feb 1, 1998, the SLA took a group of journalists, including those representing the international media to Kilinochchi on Feb 15, 1998. The writer was among the media group flown to Palaly and from there overland to Kilinochchi town to prove it was still under SLA control. Addressing the media at his headquarters, Brig. Gunawardene said that an LTTE squad made an abortive bid to blast artillery pieces at Iyakachchi about 90 minutes before the LTTE launched its attack. The LTTE also fired at the Elephant Pass base as well as the headquarters of the 7 battalion of the Vijayaba Light Infantry (VIR) Regiment.

The Feb 1, 1998 offensive was the biggest action faced by 54 Division after Brig. Gunawardene succeeded Brig. Sarath Fonseka (Troops are in full control of Kilinochchi town-The Island Feb 17, 1998).

Brig. Gunawardene said that the SLA was able to thwart a massive attack on troops based at Kilinochchi at the onset of the offensive. During fierce gun battles on the Kilinochchi front, frontline troops engaged an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) approaching their defences. The APC had overturned when troops hit its driver. The Brig. said that troops found 800 kgs of plastic explosives packed into the overturned APC. The SLA believed that the driver was an LTTE suicide cadre tasked with driving the APC bomb into Kilinochchi town to obliterate defences (APC with 800 kgs explosives found-The Island Feb 17, 1998).

Both Maj. Gen. Balagalle and Brig. Gunawardene emphasised that the loss of 54 Division’s first line of defence wouldn’t allow the LTTE to roll back the SLA back towards Elephant Pass. The SLA obviously underestimated the LTTE’s fighting capacity and its own vulnerability, primarily due to positioning of troops along the narrow Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi town stretch. The SLA also failed to realize how the Kilinochchi crisis could affect the entire military strategy. Clearly, the LTTE offensive directed at 54 Division wasn’t considered an integral part of enemy strategy. Instead, it was taken in isolation. The SLA paid an extremely heavy price for its failure to comprehend the LTTE overall plan. The LTTE build-up strong forces on both east and west of the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road to resist the Jayasikuru offensive pushing northwards and dislodge 54 Division from Kilinochchi town. It was a daunting task due to the superiority of the SLA in terms of both men and material. But the SLA was demoralised due to a spate of debacles, beginning with the annihilation of two regular infantry battalions deployed at Mullaitivu on July 18, 1996. The government was in a dilemma. The SLA struggled to prevent the disintegration of its frontlines in the face of LTTE strikes. By late Feb. 1998, the SLA realised that it didn’t have the wherewithal to sustain major offensive action on the Jayasikuru front, primarily due to heavy loss of lives, casualties as well fresh re-deployment of both men and material in support of 54 Division. But the SLFP-led PA pushed the SLA to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) at any cost. Both the PA and the SLA acknowledged that the Jaffna peninsula, liberated in May 1996, could be at risk unless the uninterrupted overland MSR was established. The SLN was finding it extremely difficult to move supplies needed by three Divisions deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and the Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi stretch as well as the other services deployed there.

Although the PA and the SLA vowed to thwart the LTTE’s battle plans, the LTTE gradually strengthened its position. The LTTE was in a commanding situation with the Sri Lankan military on the defensive on all fronts.

SLN targeted

On the night of Feb 22, 1998, The Tigers’ explosives packed fast boats rammed SLNS Pabbatha (L 838) and the passenger vessel, Valampuri, also used by the SLN off the Point Pedro coast, killing about 50 SLA and SLN personnel. They were on their way to Kankesanthurai. It was one of the major losses experienced by the SLN since the launch of the Jayasikuru offensive on May 13, 1997. The landing craft was carrying two T-86 tracked infantry combat vehicles of Chinese origin. Fast Attack Craft (FAC) escorting the convoy failed to thwart Sea Tiger suicide craft from targeting the slow moving craft (Sea Tigers blast 2 Navy vessels-The Island Feb 24, 1998). The Valampuri was owned by the Road Development Authority (RDA). The SLN had no option but to acquire vessels belonging to other institutions to move men and material to Kankesanthurai. Four personnel, who had survived the attack on Valampuri were subsequently rescued by an Indian trawler and taken to India. They were sent back to Sri Lanka. However, the Sea Tigers missed SLNS Shakthi, at that time the largest of its kind in service which escaped (Four navy survivours picked up by Indian trawlers-The Island Feb 25, 1998).

The SLN managed to salvage both T 86 tracked combat vehicles, along with the main armaments of SLNS Pabbatha.

On Feb 24, 1998 heavy fighting erupted in the general area of Mankulam. The SLA was positioned 1.2 kms south of Mankulam, though the LTTE continued to fiercely resist troops. The SLA was desperate to seize Mankulam, though linking up with the 54 Division seemed unrealistic (Heavy fighting outside Mankulam-The Island Feb 25, 1998). The LTTE successfully resisted a fresh SLA advance on Feb 24, 1998. The SLA lost dozens of men, while over 100 suffered injuries during battles (Fierce close quarter fighting in Wanni-The Island Feb 26, 1998).

On the morning of Feb 26, 1998, the Sea Tigers launched a large scale attack on the SLN’s Kilali patrol base in the Jaffna lagoon. About 20 Sea Tiger craft raided the patrol station, while the LTTE fired artillery and mortars across the Jaffna lagoon. The SLN was lucky as artillery and mortar rounds fired by the LTTE didn’t hit the base (Tiger attack on Kilali base repulsed-The Island Feb 27, 1998). Had several artillery or mortar rounds scored direct hits, the situation would have been different.

The failure on the part of the SLA to make a breakthrough on the Vanni front placed the Kumaratunga administration in an extremely difficult position. The Opposition lashed out at the PA for not being able to achieve its military objectives, though the SLA was fighting nonstop since the fall of the Mullaitivu base in July 1996. At noon on March 5, 1998, a vehicle bomb explosion near the Maradana police station killed over 30 people, including school children. The LTTE operative driving the vehicle triggered the explosion as he was being pursued by a traffic policeman. The policeman had given chase after the driver ignored a signal to stop his vehicle. The vehicle bomb was not intended to be exploded near the Maradana police station (32 killed in Maradana blast-The Island March 6, 1998).

The SLN lost an inshore patrol craft in an LTTE suicide attack outside the Trincomalee harbour in the early hours of March 11, 1998. The then SLN chief, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera asserted that in spite of losing the craft, the SLN was able to prevent Black Sea Tigers from infiltrating the Trincomalee harbour. Had Black Sea Tigers managed to move in, they could have hit a big ship, VA Tissera asserted (Major disaster in Trinco naval base averted with strap line Naval craft sinks as Tiger boat explodes-The Island March 12, 1998).

The PA was in crisis. The SLA was bogged down on the northern front, the SLN was under pressure, whereas the LTTE was able to mount attacks in Colombo.